In Sunday-evening surprise, Senate passes food-safety legislation

The Senate unexpectedly approved food-safety legislation by voice vote Sunday evening, rescuing a bill that floated in limbo for weeks because of a clerical error.

The Senate passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act on Nov. 30 by a vote of 73-25. But the bill was later invalidated by a technical objection because it was a revenue-raising measure that did not originate in the House — Senate staff had failed to substitute the food-safety language into a House-originated bill.

A coalition of groups supporting the bill sent a letter Sunday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) calling for action on food safety.

“Our organizations are writing to support attaching S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, to the Senate's proposed short-term continuing resolution,” the groups wrote. “Strong food-safety legislation will reduce the risk of contamination and provide FDA with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help make prevention the focus of our food safety strategies.”

The American Public Health Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and other groups signed the letter.

Democrats first attempted to attach the food-safety bill to a short-term spending measure, but Republicans balked because they wanted to keep that measure clean, according to Senate aides.

Republicans, however, later agreed to pass it by voice vote. 

Reid announced he would send the legislation — this time properly attached to a House-originated measure — back to the lower chamber for final approval.

“Our food safety system has not been updated in almost a century. Families in Nevada and across America should never have to worry about whether the food they put on their table is safe," Reid said in a statement. "This is a common-sense issue with broad bipartisan support.

"Tonight we unanimously passed a measure to improve on our current food safety system by giving the FDA the resources it needs to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, without unduly burdening farmers and food producers,” he said.

The legislation is a high priority for Reid and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Reid’s staff earlier in the day had told a coalition of groups supporting the legislation that it had a chance of passing, but the prospects appeared to dim as Sunday wore on. The swift approval by unanimous consent caught some aides and lobbyists working on it by surprise.

Sen. Tom Coburn, the outspoken conservative Republican from Oklahoma, had been blocking the legislation, and lifted his objection at the final moment.


Correction: The food-safety bill was approved by the Senate in a voice vote. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.